Friday, January 15, 2016

Everything I Need to Know About Writing, I Learned From Figure Skating by Katie Van Ark

I skated my way into writing. At first reading, this may seem to imply that writing glided to me, as natural as sleeping and waking. It didn't. Writing came with the bruises of repeated Axel attempts: soaring jumps of hope crashed by rejections from agents. Writing came with the ice burn of editors' criticisms, the pulled muscle torture of a high school English teacher reading the short stories of our entire class aloud. (Two minutes in, I became painfully aware that mine would have been better targeted to a middle grade audience; half a class period later I was scrunching in my seat with the realization that I had written not a short story but a novella.)

No, when I say I skated into writing, I mean it literally. My passion for skating cultivated my passion for writing. Though I played with writing as a child, earning invitations to young author events and winning a poetry contest, my heart belonged to skating. I acted out entire competitions with my dolls, scrutinized the biographies of top competitors, and longed to try it myself. I took ballet and piano lessons, but the nearest ice rink was forty-five minutes from our house and there honestly wasn't money, or, with my competitive swimming and supercharged class load, time for much else.

With the help of adult-learn-to-skate classes, I came to skating as an adult and fell head over love. I thought I loved skating before; now, I breathed skating. This sounds perhaps like something that might happen to a character in a novel, but the passion was so overwhelming that my husband and I saw a marriage counselor over it. (Success – we just celebrated our ten year anniversary.) Even pregnant with my first daughter, I skated until my seventh month. The evening I realized I was too pregnant to skate anymore, I came home and cried for two hours. What was I going to do? Pouring the intensity of that emotion onto the page, I rediscovered my passion for writing. And realized that everything I needed to know about writing, I learned from figure skating.

  • First, it's okay to start small. I have a favorite childhood memory of building a backyard ice rink with my father. Our city backyard was tiny, and our rink was about six swizzle pumps wide and only a little bit longer. It had giant potholes where leaves from our crabapple tree froze under the surface and then caught the heat of the winter sun and melted the ice. Bumpy at best and treacherous at worst, it was ice. That my father cared enough to help me with this time-consuming, and in fickle west Michigan weather, often futile effort, gave me the seed of the idea that skating was something I could do. It's the same for writing. Even one frozen drop of water can be enough if you want it, really want it. For me, this was when I dared to show my mother, a writer and librarian, the beginning ramblings of my first book. She had lots of advice and areas to improve but, “Sure, this could be a novel,” were the words I took with me as my droplet of hope.
  • Second, however small your start, you must put in the time. It's about repetition. With good daily practice routines, the elements on ice come. With good daily writing routines, the words flow. Practice never makes perfect, but quality practice builds improvement bit by bit. Listen to your coaches, aka your trusted critique group, because whether you like it or not, they're right most of the time. But know that sometimes you have to follow your heart, sometimes you just have to know when it's time to ditch a project. I once completely changed programs three weeks before a national competition, much to the chagrin of my coach. That new program won me a national gold medal. So go ahead, re-write that novel in first person. Cut those scenes. Start over with a blank page. And take comfort in the fact that least in writing you can save all your old versions on the computer and pull out an old routine with the click of your mouse.
  • On the ice or on the page, you will fall down. A lot. All you can do is pick yourself up, the sooner the better. You must try again. It took me almost a year to learn a loop jump, two years for the flip, and five years for the lutz. I'm still working on that Axel and I won't even tell you how many hours I worked at writing, but I try to remember that everyone is afraid sometimes, that everyone struggles with some things. You must believe you can do it.
  • Take advantage of camps, clinics, and retreats. Fresh opinions can help you get over a rut. I had been struggling with a loop jump for months when I attended a skating camp in Aspen. New phrasing and the trick of jumping out of a backspin helped me master the element that week. And when asked for advice, give it when you can. Helping others can help you, too. It's so much easier to see the faults when watching, or in the case of writing, reading someone else's technique. And of course every once in a while you'll happen upon a move you can borrow and make your own.
  • Just like skating, writing is also about acting. To make your characters real to your audience, you need to feel them, get inside their heads. Wear your heart on your sleeve and keep a box of tissues nearby for the tears and runny noses. Because in skating, you only need to do one character per program but in writing you're going to need to do them all.
  • And finally, sweat the small stuff. Yes, pay attention to details in your routines and in your novels but don't forget about your actual real world. I used to have one of those t-shirts proclaiming that “figure skating is life, the rest is just details!” I gave it to Goodwill. Skating, writing, whatever your passions – life is in the details, and not the sequin-covered, rhinestone-studded variety. Don't forget to live.

Katie Van Ark lives in Michigan with two little girls who love mud, a cat that thinks it's a dog, and a very patient husband. The Boy Next Door, a YA figure skating love story, is her first novel. Visit her online at or on Twitter @kvanark.

Katie is one of the busiest people I know - mom, teacher, figure skater, author, and she's about to graduate with her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Through all of this, she's been very giving of her time to help other writers. 

A master's degree in fine arts: The best career move? What will I gain from all of that time and expense? Can it be affordable? Questions about MFA programs are often posed to editors and authors at writing conferences. Katie has offered to gather her fellow students at VCFA to answer your questions. What would you like to know about the MFA experience? Leave your questions in the comments or email me at We'll share the answers in a future post.

Happy New Year!
Kristin Lenz


  1. This post is such a gift, Katie. Thank you for sharing it and your hard-won knowledge.

  2. Excellent post, Katie. I read "writer" through all of it. Your words flow beautifully.

  3. Great advice! Thanks for the motivation, Katie.